From frustration to despair, the UC Irvine men’s basketball team experienced a multitude of emotions against Long Beach State Friday night in the semifinals of the Big West tournament. Having defeated them twice in the last two encounters, the 77-72 loss seemed to add insult to injury, as their goal of making NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season were washed away by the Beach.
Five different 49ers scored in double digits as they were led by sophomore guard Justin Bibbins who notched 17 points, six rebounds, and five assists. For the ‘Eaters, junior guard Jaron Martin converted on five three pointers on the night and ended with a game high 21 points that were crucial in UCI’s comeback attempt in the second half. Playing the majority of the second half, junior center Mamadou Ndiaye chipped in 16 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, and three assists. With players from both teams being in foul trouble, the game became reliant on bench production and cashing in on free throw opportunities throughout the game.
A whistle heavy first half boded well for the 49ers as more than half of their 39 first half points came from the free throw line. Both teams shot a near identical field goal percentage in the first, with Long Beach at 32 percent and Irvine at 30 percent, and both teams would exchange runs to keep it a tightly contested game. After a back and forth opening seven minutes, the ‘Eaters would go on an 8-0 run to give them their largest lead of the night at 10. Fouls would then begin to accumulate for the ‘Eaters, forcing starters to sit, and disrupt their rhythm offensively. The 49ers would UCI without a field goal for the last eight minutes of the first half. Long Beach would go on a 16-4 run to end the first period to take the 39-30 advantage at halftime.
“There was a high level of frustration in our locker room at halftime because there were so many foul calls that went against us [and] it was just surprising,” said Head Coach Russell Turner, “What I had hoped was that we could keep guys on the floor, defend aggressively, the game would stay close and our main guys would be available coming down the stretch and that [didn’t] work out.”
After 13 minutes of play in the second half, the ‘Eaters began to mount on an 11-0 stretch of their own to take the lead against the 49ers at 62-61. Martin scored 18 of his points in the second half contributing to Irvine’s last attempt to salvage the season and keep their NCAA tournament dreams alive. Focused on pulling off the upset, the 49ers would immediately answer back with a 7-0 run to retake the lead with 4:53 left to play. The match became a one possession game in the final two minutes but 49er senior guard Nick Faust made a pull up mid-range shot to put his team up by two scores leaving 34 seconds on the clock. As the Long Beach fans in attendance were beginning to celebrate victory, the ‘Eater nation sported looks of devastation that their Big West tourney hopes were halted by their Black and Blue rival.
“Congratulations to Long Beach, [it was] a great game. They made the plays to beat us and they deserve credit for that,” said Turner, “I’m incredibly proud of my guys, this team, and also disappointed that we weren’t able to win tonight.”
With Hawai’i winning the Big West conference tournament and earning the automatic bid to the NCAA tourney, the ‘Eaters will look to either compete in the NIT or CIT to continue their postseason run.
“I’m excited for these guys to have another opportunity to compete and they deserve that,” said Turner, “ That’s what players play for. We competed [and] came up short but if you want to play high level sports, you have to understand that high level opponents can beat you and you have to deal with that as men when it happens.”